Liberia, Sweet Land of Liberty!
September 11, 2001
Editor's Note: Siahyonkron Jglay Kpa-kay Nyanseor, Chairman of the Liberian Democratic Future, served as Installing Officer for the Inaugural Program of the Grand Gedeh Association in the Americas (GGAA), Inc. over the Labor Day weekend in Providence, Rhode Island. Below is the full text of Mr. Nyanseor's speech delivered on September 1, 2001:
I bring you greetings and solidarity in these troubled times. While these are sad times in the history of our beloved country, I am happy to inform you tonight that there is hope - hope in the sense that many of you are making the difference by joining various self-help organizations, while those of us who are bold enough, have forced the Liberian people to discuss our national problem - turned tragedy, in the media. We can no longer discuss our palaver in our closets or over Club Beer. We have got to put our problem in the proper perspective. The old approach that advised us to - "Leave the people's thing alone" did not work then, and will not work today. Therefore, we need a complete departure from the way things were handled and used to be.
In this regard, I was invited for us to have a dialogue - and at the end of the day, come up with a mutual solution; rather than for me to make you dejavu over some "good old days" and how "Liberia was once a sweet country", and to overlook the origin of the Liberian Palaver, which by all accounts, was due to the "False Start" in establishing our country. On the other hand, I don't think any of you in this audience tonight would want me to engage in such hypocrisy. Do you?
On this note, let me extend special thanks and appreciation to the organizers for asking me to be a part of your inaugural exercise. I want you to know that I am pleased immensely, to be selected as your Installing Officer.
Ladies and Gentlemen, I have chosen to speak to you on the subject: Liberia, Sweet Land of Liberty! To begin our discussion, I will pose the following questions for you to ponder over. 1. For whom was Liberia sweet? 2. Was it sweet for all of the citizens of Liberia? If not, why wasn't it sweet for everyone? Finally, how did these factors contribute to our present nightmare? I don't know about you, but I am led to conclude that they do.
As a believer in the concept of "Two heads are better than one," I am counting on the leadership and members of the Grand Gedeh Association in the Americas to "hanghead" with me on this matter, so that together, we will arrive at a common solution to our common palaver. To begin the process, we need to find out the meaning to the word - palaver, and how it became part of our national existence.
According to William E. Allen, the word "palaver" derived from the Portuguese word, "palavra," meaning speech or talk. During the 16th century, Portuguese traders that conducted business with Africans on the West Coast of Africa were often frustrated and disgusted with African chiefs who they felt were always "talking and talking" about what they considered irrelevant details. From the cultural point of view of the Portuguese, this African practice of examining every relevant details, was considered useless or meaningless and a complete waste of time. Eventually, the word "palaver" came to represent what they saw as a useless and protracted discussion.
But what the Portuguese did not know or failed to recognize was - the so-called "endless talk" that our people were engaged in, was intended to find a common solution, a consensus to issues, no matter how complex or small. The British, French, Dutch, Germans and the Arabs encountered similar problem when they came to Africa as imperialists. They observed that whenever there was a dispute or discussion, our elders would assemble under the shade of a tree or in what is known today as a "Palaver Hut" to talk (discuss) until they came to an agreement. Those of us with indigenous background can attest to the way palaver was judged in the village. The process was very tedious, because everyone who was involved had to be given the opportunity to speak. Regarding this noble tradition, Mwalimu Julius A. Nyerere, former president of Tanzania described our noble tradition as a "constant quest for consensus through discussion". As for me, I consider it as a government by discussion; or simply put, government by consensus.
Ladies and Gentlemen, the task before us is to judge the Liberian palaver, properly! I think the first thing that needs to take place would be, for the parties in the dispute to agree that they have a problem; secondly, they must be willing to honestly discuss the problem; thirdly, they must agree on the rules by which the palaver will be decided. Finally, the rules by which the palaver will be judged must be based on "The Three Needs of Liberia", a lecture given by Edward Wilmot Blyden in Grand Bassa County, January 26, 1908.
In the speech, Blyden said:
"This year we celebrate the eighty-sixth anniversary of the founding of the city of Monrovia by the Negro settlers from America. The colony is nearly ninety years old. The Republic has just celebrated its Diamond Jubilee. Still Liberia is called by foreigners an experiment. Nothing of the kind has ever happened before in the world's history. A group of returned exiles - refugees from the house of bondage - settled along a few hundred miles of the coast of their Fatherland, attempting to rule millions of people, their own kith and kin, on a foreign system in which they themselves have been imperfectly trained, while knowing very little of the facts of the history of the people they assume to rule, either social, economic or religious, and taking for granted that the religious and social theories they have brought from across the sea must be adapted to all the need of their unexpatriated brethren.
"Liberia is a little bit of South Carolina, of Georgia, of Virginia - that is to say - of the ostracized, suppressed, depressed elements of these states - tacked on to West Africa - a most incongruous combination, with no reasonable prospect of success; and further complicated by additions from other sources. We take a bit from England, a bit from France, a little bit from Germany, and try to compromise with all. We have no definite plan, no dominating race conception, with really nothing to help us from behind - the scene whence we came - and nothing to guide us from before the goal to which we are tending or should tend. We are severed from the parent stock - the aborigines - who are the root, branch, and flower of Africa and of any Negro State in Africa.
"Our progress will come by connection with the parent stock. The question, therefore, which we should try to study and answer is, what are the underlying principles of African life? Every nation and every tribe has a right to demand freedom of life, and abundance of life, because it has a contribution to make peculiar to itself toward the ultimate welfare of the world. But no nation can have this freedom of life, and make this contribution, which no other nation can make, without connection with its past, of which it must carefully preserve the traditions, if it is to understand the present and have an intelligent and inspiring hope of the future."
"The Three Needs of Liberia" that Blyden spoke so eloquently about are: EMANCIPATION, ILLUMINATION and HARMONIZATION. The Webster Dictionary defined Emancipation as - to free, liberate or release; Illumination is defined as - spiritual and intellectual enlightenment or clarification, and Harmonization is defined as - to be in agreement, to live in peace or to co-exist.
Blyden summarized his concept ( "Three Needs of Liberia") in this way:
"we need Emancipation. When the first Negro emigrants for Liberia left the United States in the good ship Elizabeth in 1820, they escaped physical bondage. And when Abraham Lincoln in 1863, proclaimed freedom for the Negroes throughout the United States, he delivered them from material shackles which hampered and degraded the body. The body was set free, but the soul remained in bondage. Therefore, the intellectual, social and religious freedom of the American ex-slave has yet to be achieved. When our fathers came across the Atlantic they brought with them the social, industrial, and religious trammels that bound them to the intellectual and material "fleshpots" of America. Those trammels they transmitted to us. They could not help themselves. The mere passage across the sea did not change their mental condition.
"And now, we, their descendants, call ourselves Americo-Liberians or Afro-Americans, that is to say, Africans with the prejudices and predilections - the bias and aspirations - of white men: with "ideals", as Sir. Harry Johnston has told us in his extraordinary History of Liberia (1906), "pitifully Anglo-Saxon": and these "ideals", altogether unattainable, are nevertheless, the burden, the stumbling block and the opprobrium of the nation. They beguile us into efforts to introduce a condition of things under which Europe and America are helplessly staggering, and compel us to take upon ourselves and labour to solve the problems of a foreign climate and alien race, which of course takes away from us the desire, the disposition and the ability to study our own problems and their solution."
As a matter of fact, for 154 years, the leaders of our country have been using the same old alien approach to address and solve the Liberian palaver. It is their failure to do the right thing that got us where we find ourselves, today - in exile and refugee camps throughout Africa and the Diaspora. And only a fool will see our nightmare any other way.
Nevertheless, I have always felt that if the pregnant issues of our beloved country were discussed openly, we might not have reached the stage in which, we find ourselves today. Instead, most of our people chose to "swallow their cough for fear that it might disturb others;" and they went on to accept the advice of friends as well as foes - to "leave the people's thing alone." There and then, some of us should have insisted on knowing, which of the people, this thing called Liberia belongs to.
However, what majority of our people failed to realize is - a country is like the rooster that crows in the morning. The rooster belongs to a single household, but the voice of the rooster is the property of the entire village. Therefore, it was the responsibility of all of us to have done what was required to correct the ills of the Liberian society. But it appears that most of our people were afraid to face the truth square in the face. And even today, these same individuals view discussion as opening old wounds or "pushing up fire." I personally view open discussion as a healthy medium through which, we as Liberians can setter our differences. For example, in a discussion, we do not have to agree on every issue, but this approach serves as a means in working towards a compromise or a "civilized" way of judging our palaver
In other words, for the Liberian Palaver to be solved once and for all, we have to look at what caused it and is still causing the palaver. To put it bluntly, the Liberian Palaver has to do with the manner in which our country was established. The process was faulty; as a result, it contributed to sectionalism and tribalism as we know them today. What do I mean?
For example, the settlers from North America who established Liberia, had all of the characteristics of an imperialist power. Like most imperialist power, they too, brought along with them a belief system and attitude, which made them to feel "superior" and to view the indigenous inhabitants as "inferior". Furthermore, their language (American English) with which the alleged transaction for the so-called "purchased land" was conducted was based on their concept and standards of land tenure and transaction; no consideration was made for the indigenous inhabitants' concept of land transaction and tenure. With this mindset, the settlers went on to rename everything they came in contact with, which included, towns, rivers and the names of indigenous children - like the names some of you bare today.
On the other hand, the settlers established a social, political and economic culture, which in its formative stage never included the indigenous inhabitants, much more considered them as citizens of their place of birth, where "The Love of Liberty" should have united them with their brothers and sisters. But as Blyden puts it, the settlers' religious and social theories that they brought from across the sea, were imposed on their brethren without any consideration. This is the exact approach that the European settlers used on the Cherokees, Navajos, Sioux, Pueblos, Apaches, Iroquois, etc., in order to occupy their land, and today, the Native Americans are forced to live on State and Federal reservations. It was similar system that the Afrikaans of South Africa adopted for their "Homeland" policy for the African majority. This Reservation or "Homeland" system is in some cases, similar to the political sub-division known in Liberia as COUNTY, which is based on ethnicity (tribe).
Since history is a constant reminder of past and present events, it will be difficult for us to become one people, without first resolving the Liberian palaver. By this I mean, we need to put into practice Blyden's "Three Needs" and what I called "Affirmative Reconciliation (AR)." The focus of the AR approach will be to educate our people regarding what went wrong and how it can be resolved amicably. Anything short of this approach, will continue to prevent us from becoming the "One People" that we truly want to be - living together in a "Sweet land of liberty."
The concept of "Affirmative Reconciliation," was derived from President Lyndon Baines Johnson's June 4, 1965 speech to the graduating class of Howard University. It was in this speech, he framed the concept underlying affirmative action. President Johnson asserted that civil rights laws alone were not enough to remedy discrimination:
"You do not wipe away the scars of centuries by saying: 'now you are free to go where you want, do as you desire, and choose the leaders you please.' You do not take a man who for years has been hobbled by chains, liberate him, bring him to the starting line of a race, saying, 'you are free to complete with all the others,' and still justly believe you have been completely fair. This is the next and more profound stage of the battle for civil rights. We seek not just freedom but opportunity - not just legal equity but human ability - not just equality as a right and a theory, but equality as a fact and as a result."
In the 1500s, Martin Luther, the Founder of the Lutheran Church wrote:
"Government is instituted, not in order to seek its own profit at the expense of the subjects and to exercise its self-will on them but in order to provide for the best interests of its subject."
If we believe this statement to be truth, I will propose for the leadership of both the national and the New England chapters of the Grand Gedeh Association in the Americas get involve in addressing the following issues:
1. We should have the leadership of our country to implement an "Affirmative Reconciliation Plan" that will first admit that serious palaver have existed amongst us for over 154 years; define the palaver, and work "honestly" to find a lasting solution to it.
2. Where there is diversity, there is strength - therefore, every one of us should take pride in our ethnicity, i.e., culture, languages, African names, etc.
3. Let us work together to do away with the "reservation-type" county boundaries that segregate us on the basis of our ethnicity.
4. We should all have our government establish a Research, Education and Reconciliation Commission (RERC) or a Commission by any other name that will address those issues that continued to divide us.
5. On an annual basis, we should organize a business and educational symposium or seminar to teach Liberian history and cultural to our children (especially, those who were born in the Diaspora) and how to start a business and manage it.
6. Let us get prepare for the 2003 General Elections by participating in the $1 million Democratic Fund that is being established by ULAA, and the role we will play in the Elections, and
7. Let us plan to participate in the September 20, 2001 Immigration Rally that will be held in Washington, D. C.
Ladies and Gentlemen, our coming together as Liberians to form community, county and alumni organizations is a good start. However, we must realize that we are Liberians first. Therefore, it is imperative that we participate "actively" in our local Liberian community associations, which has as its umbrella organization - the Union of Liberian Associations in the Americas (ULAA), and whose current president is, Mrs. Mydea Reeves-Karpeh.
Like most national organizations that have lasted for 27 years, ULAA has had its share of problems. Notwithstanding, ULAA has made valuable contributions to our community in the Diaspora and at home. Make no mistake about this! However, as human, we tend to remember or dwell only on the negatives such as the role played by former ULAA leaders in our national politics. It is unfair to blame ULAA for the faults of former ULAA leaders like President Charles Taylor, Tambakai Jangaba, Tom Woewiyu, Blamo Nelson, Nyudueh Mornokomana, just to name a few. Therefore, we need to renew our support for that great organization so that it will continue to champion the cause of all Liberians in the Diaspora and at home.
We cannot allow that august organization atrophy due to the lack of interest, which is based on "misinformation" and refuse to learn about the contributions ULAA has made and continued to make. ULAA is a pacesetter - it was ULAA that started the organizing business in the Diaspora. But I suspect that individuals in certain quarters, who are misinformed about ULAA's activities would like for it to not exist. This is sad because, ULAA cannot be replaced with county, alumni or soccer association because these associations' goals and objectives cater to a particular interest group, while, ULAA's as we say in Liberia - "For we'are all," regardless of where one hails from in Liberia.
To the officers-elect and members of the National and New England Chapters of the Grand Gedeh Association in the Americas, I say, you must refrain from engaging in the "Cult of Leadership" that Liberians are accustomed to; instead, you should follow the "Institutional Approach" in operating your organization. By this I mean, follow the purpose for which you were organized, which is to further the interests of your membership and country, instead of blindly supporting a leader who happens to be your brother, sister or a friend who is from your township, who since elected has nothing to show by way of progress; this is how some Liberian organizations that I have had the opportunity to observed, operate. As a result, viable and sustainable achievements are not made.
Therefore, to resolve this type of behavior and practices, I am suggesting the following:
1. That Liberian organizations stop recycling guest speakers from either the old or new order, who have not learn from our history, and has continued to speak to you from an outdated and failed paradigm, which is based on some "Good Old Days."
2. That you make it a practice to invite female - as your guest speaker or a speaker who is not from your political subdivision, this way, you will not only be getting another perspective, you will also be working towards uniting our country.
3. That you promote the interests of your association instead of serving or promoting the interests of your leaders,
4. That you make your leaders answerable to you - the membership.
5. That you hold your leaders responsible for their actions.
6. That on an ongoing basis, you (the members) should be prepared to critique and evaluate your leaders.
7. That the leadership must encourage equal participation by keeping the membership inform regarding the affairs of the association rather than "a select few" operating the association.
8. That the association develop the type of leadership that is performance oriented, and
9. That whenever the president or any of the officers of the association is not functioning to the expectation of the association, that individual should be dealt with, and when found incompetent, removed from office in accordance with the constitution and by-laws of the association.
You should not wait to stage a coup d 'tat in order to have an incompetent person remove from office. It should be the understood among the membership that an elected officer who failed to live up to his/her obligations will face such consequences. By all means, the members of the association should avoid giving unnecessary praises to their leader, and when his/her back is turn, only to say he/she did not do this or what he/she did was wrong. Also, do not brand individuals you do not agree with as "troublemakers". If you chose to let go your rights to critique a leader, remember that others have the same rights to do the exact opposite. Don't call them "troublemakers" because they choose to speak their minds, and you chose not to. The "Your leave the people's thing alone" approach will retard your progress, and even dissolve an organization with good intention. Also, be open-minded to new way of thinking, new ideas and new ways of doing things. Do not be content with the same old way of doing things. Be creative and experiment with new ideas. Lastly, do not be judgmental or engage in backbiting! Get to know why people think or do things the way they do. Learn to gather your facts first before you react, or understand somebody before rushing to conclusion, or pronouncing somebody wrong or as a bad person.
These are my suggestions to you. You are at liberty to use them or pass them over to those that will find some merits in them. And for the sake of our country, let's be honest with each other. Ladies and gentlemen, the choice is yours to make!
In closing, permit me to leave with you a quote by one of our own - E. ZarZar Bargblor. According to Bargblor, "There is a famous poem entitled 'Children Learn What They Live... If a child lives with shame, he learns to feel guilty.' Observational learning theory supports the poem by suggesting that man has the ability to learn certain behaviors merely by watching someone else perform them. Therefore, what others do, especially those in leadership positions, has a great influence on those they governed."
On this note, I thank you plenty and wish all of you the best of luck in your new positions.